Who gets to be first?!

The Gift of Forgiveness!
September 15, 2023
To whom do we give power and glory?
September 29, 2023
The Gift of Forgiveness!
September 15, 2023
To whom do we give power and glory?
September 29, 2023

In the middle of this week’s reading about the Laborers in the Vineyard, found in Matthew’s Gospel 20:1-16, are these words: ‘you have made them equal to us!’  It is the voice of outrage from the vineyard workers, who in their opinion, are paid unfairly as they compare themselves to those hired later in the day.  Our well-honed instincts for equity and fairness have gone onto high alert.  What does God mean, when this is described as being like the kingdom of heaven? It is outrageous.  The people have chosen to ‘take offence’!

The story of the Laborers in the Vineyard is a startling text, stirring up our emotions, and it is only found in Matthew’s Gospel.  The story follows on from a discussion by the disciples with Jesus about power, hierarchy and entitlement.  The disciples had been pushing Jesus to find out who would rank highest in God’s kingdom.  Would it be those who came early or the later ones? Surely God would reward those who had been there from the beginning and had worked hardest in the vineyard.  Jesus promised them, ‘you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (19:28).  But the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard reaches into the dangers lurking in the question Peter asked previously. ‘Look we have left everything and followed you, what then will we have?’ (19:27)

Our human desire to be first, to be honoured and rewarded ahead of others, shines through strongly in all our behaviours.  However, this story is not about comparing ‘works and grace’.  This is not the kingdom of heaven being compared with human systems and structures but is the other way round.  It is a radical challenge which peels open what sits in the darkness of our hearts, rising from the fear someone whom we don’t regard, will end up better off than us, someone might get something we think they don’t deserve, aren’t entitled to, when we are far more deserving.  Much of this is visible in the current debate about the Voice and our First Nations peoples, as we are profoundly challenged by God on our notions of equity, fairness and generosity.

This story also has the same emphasis as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as the older brother comes back to the house from working in the fields, and hears the party going on to welcome the younger son who has wasted his inheritance and now come home in disgrace.   The older brother is outraged and resentful at the unfairness of his badly behaved brother who has been forgiven.  He was being welcomed by his gullible father; and the brother imagines he will probably end up being cheated of more of his entitlement. In this imagining, its simply not fair. 

The landowner has shown by his actions, God’s grace for those welcomed into the kingdom, is radical and different.  It shakes the foundations of our understanding of what would be considered fair economically in our world, it tips upside down our everyday ethics and expectations of fairness and privilege. 

Yet the landowner hasn’t violated any rights and is not being deceitful.  The laborers were hired for the agreed usual day’s wages. The landowner also deliberately chose to pay the laborers in the reverse order of hiring generating much grumbling as those waiting to be paid, hired earlier in the day, were able to see what was happening.  Their outrage is palpable:

’These last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’. Matthew 20:12

But the landowner says gently,

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong: did you not agree with me for usual wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.’ Matthew 20:13

We are reminded uncomfortably of the queues of workers who stand in the hot sun, from the early hours of the morning, in the corner of the marketplaces in countries without welfare, waiting to be hired by the day; knowing if they are not hired, there won’t be food on the table in the evening.  There’s no hint in the parable the landowner either has work for them or needs them. What we see is the kingdom is simply God’s grace in action, welcoming all; and if we come with expectations of human reward, we will be disappointed.  The landowner says:

‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ Matthew 20:15

It’s worth understanding Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, not a kingdom in this world.  So why on earth would we assume the conditions of entry and participation are the same?  However, the apparent unfairness of the situation still seems wrong to those who question God’s generosity.  The parable invites us to sit with this tension and question our hearts about why we think Jesus is wrong or why we want to justify our grumpiness about the apparent contradictions in God’s kingdom that don’t make sense here in this world.  We are encountering a different, radical way of thinking, one which is being entirely fair and lavishly generous which flows together in an unbroken whole. Of course God acts in this way.  God refuses to play fairness and generosity off against one another.  

The final question from the landowner invites us to reconsider the way this story has been put together and how we are choosing to see it. It puts our own responses into a new perspective. 

‘Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’Matthew 20:15

Faith has to do with what is in our minds, what we do or do not ‘allow’ to God.  Faith is the willingness to trust when God reminds us, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8).  Faithfulness has to do with steadfastly refusing envy and scapegoating and instead welcoming God’s lavish expressions of generosity on those who have come in differently, who are not the same.  They will include the prodigal sons and daughters, the sinners, the ones not like us, the ‘others’ we believe don’t belong, and those first into heaven will be the ones we may have considered the least deserving.  Will we recognise this and also accept the loving meaning of grace?

We are absolutely left unsettled by the action of radical grace in the kingdom and the changes required from those of us who would receive it.  All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and change is painful.  The landowner confronts the workers with their own limited understandings.  The landowner invites them and us to consider a kingdom full of subversive love and grace, to be different to rest of the world; and to be joyful at God’s scandalously abundant love shared with everyone, irrespective of when they came and who they are, we are simply invited to give thanks and celebrate with God.

The Lord be with you.

Reference     Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds].  2014.  Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Vol.2.  Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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